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Epics, epilogue and The War Games (1969)

wargames

Welcome to The War Games, Doctor Who’s longest story.

(I’ll just let that sit there and rankle for a bit.)

No, you say, what about The Trial of a Time Lord? Four separate narratives, I say.

All right, you say, but what about The Daleks’ Master Plan? You can’t deny that one! Well, I can in fact. As you’ll see if we ever get around to randoming it, I’d say Master Plan’s episodic format makes it feel like a series of mini-stories rather than one big one.

That leaves The War Games with the series’ longest contained narrative. And unlike those other contenders, it feels like one epic story, told over a record-breaking 9 episodes.

(I know, I’m being particularly annoying today.)

I say 9 episodes because that’s how long it takes to wrap up the main story. Episode Ten, is an epilogue and although it contains some bonus sneering and running around with the War Lord (Philip Madoc), it’s dealing with something else entirely. It’s a one episode story about the Doctor’s final come uppance with the Time Lords. And of course, it changes the show forever.

*****

The War Games has been mightily re-evaluated in recent years. It started with a glowing review of the DVD by Gary Gillatt in DWM. Even co-writer Terrance Dicks, who had for years proffered a line that the story began and ended well but flagged in the middle, was convinced. So its reputation has grown to the point where it’s now our favourite 60s story, according to DWM’s 50th anniversary poll.

For me, it’s too patchy to be consistently satisfying. Those early episodes set in faux World War One are terrific though. The design work is excellent, the characters are believable and well portrayed and director David Maloney brings out a pervading sense of menace. Then there’s the unsettling sight of our cozy TARDIS team of silly old Doctor (the Trought, on form), funny old Jamie (the Fraze) and fussy old Zoe (the, um, Pads) suddenly dropped into shocking danger, the threat of violent death all around them. All capped off with that brilliant cliffhanger to Episode Two, when time zones collide and Roman soldiers come charging out of nowhere at our friends.

(Quick aside: Terence Bayler plays Major Barrington, and his resemblance to Rowan Atkinson is remarkable. It made me wonder is The War Games may have been an influence on Blackadder Goes Forth. Sound a bit far fetched? Well, think about Barrington/Blackadder and Carstairs/George at the front, and Smythe/Melchett and Ransom/Darling back safe behind lines at the Chateau.)

But after those initial episodes, the action is shared between the earthly war zones and the bad guys’ HQ. Their base has some fetching op art on the walls but is otherwise so much plywood and vac formed plastic. Clearly, the budget has run out. Billowing plastic sheets replace walls. Characters hide from others behind the scantest of flats, and their pursuers must pretend not to see them. Walls are too expensive, black drapes must suffice. Spaceships are controlled by play magnets. It’s resourceful work when faced with limited dough, but it can’t help but look tacky.

The insubstantial-ness of the sets isn’t helped by the fairly basic melodrama played out within them. Mostly, it’s middle management sniping between the War Chief (Edward Brayshaw) and the Security Chief (James Bree). Both resentful and suspicious of the other, it’s the sort of thing that’s difficult to sustain over multiple episodes. Brayshaw goes for fruity, beard stroking villainy, while Bree opts for the nasal voiced bitching of a career civil servant. Both keep threatening to take their slowly escalating dispute to their team leader. It feels like we’re watching the petty irritations of a pair of office co-workers, promoted beyond their competence. “What a stupid fool you are. You’ve jammed the photocopier again!” “Well, don’t think I didn’t see you stealing Sue from Accounts’ soy milk from the fridge. What a stupid fool you are!”

Dicks and co-writer Malcolm Hulke have over four hours to fill with material, but never get around to giving these “aliens” a name or a planet of origin. We have to assume then that it’s a deliberate move to keep them non-descript. Because they don’t have individual names either. They are either named after their occupations (War Lord, Security Chief and Scientist) or after the fictional characters they take on when in the time zones (General Smythe, Von Weich). In fact, the only thing which distinguishes them is their predisposition for eyewear, either the sinister pebble glasses type or the wacky sunvisor type.

So we switch regularly from the relatively realistic settings of historical wars to this b-grade world of flimsy sets, generically named people and unlikely spectacles. But it’s in the latter that we find the Doctor’s greatest secret hiding. Because the War Chief is not actually one of this colourless race. (You can tell by the way he’s wearing a hood ornament on a big chain around his neck). In fact, he’s a Time Lord, one of the Doctor’s kith. “You may have changed your appearance, but I know who you are,” he purrs, when the two finally get some time alone in Episode Eight. And so Dicks and Hulke set about dismantling the framework the show has been built on over the last six years.

*****

We know in hindsight that The War Games was designed to kick the show into a new format. But it feels like it could also have been the end of the show, if that’s what was required. It doesn’t feel definitive. It’s having a bet each way. That last shot of a decapitated Doctor spinning helplessly through to oblivion – quite disturbing, really – is basically saying, we don’t know if there’s a future for this show.

Patrick Troughton picks up on this uncertainty. He plays his Doctor not with the restless energy of an eternal runaway, but with the resignation of a fugitive who knows the game is up. It’s his companions who have to spur him on to try to evade his Time Lord judges. Throughout these ten episodes, Troughton never stops looking for the lighter moment amongst all the gloom. He never stops trying to energise a flagging moment. But still, he’s a Time Lord at the end of his time.

Episode Ten – that little recognised one parter – gives him some excellent material to work with though. In a scene destined for clip show after clip show, he rails against the inactivity of his fellow Time Lords. While some old monster costumes are wheeled out to wobble in front of black curtains, the Doctor stakes his claim. There are some corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things. They must be fought, not merely observed. There’s still a need for him to be a funny, brave, compassionate hero. It might be doubtful about the future, but this story is very clearly saying, there’s still a need for Doctor Who.

LINK to The Girl Who DiedAliens disguised as earthly warriors.

NEXT TIME… The fat just walks away. We take on some Partners in Crime.

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Technology, the environment and The Ice Warriors (1967)

ice warriors

Climate change skeptics rejoice! The Ice Warriors is here to back you up. The future will not be about catastrophic global warming, but catastrophic global cooling! See, you knew it was all bunkum, right? Now where’s that Doctor Who story that shows the moon landing‘s a fake?

Ah, I shouldn’t be so hard on The Ice Warriors. It’s fifty years since they made it out of polystyrene, fibre glass and some old manor house sets left over from a period drama. And even if writer Brian Hayles set his thermostat in the wrong direction, he focused in on a concern we still have today; that our degradation of the environment will bring about worldwide, deleterious changes in climate. In fact, this could well claim to be Doctor Who‘s first story to comment on environmental issues.

The Ice Warriors has a lot to warn us about the future, not just that glaciers are coming to crush us all. It’s set in a world where humans have been robbed of their ability to make decisions, having outsourced that function to computers. As a result, they have grown impotent and must faff around for scene after scene, prevaricating about various crises until the computer tells them what to do. It’s a peculiar kind of technophobia, and a bit like the climate change angle, we see this differently today. These days we’re worried that robots will take our jobs and AI will eventually do away with us. Back in 1967, Hayles was more worried we’d stop thinking for ourselves and become slaves of the mind.

Interestingly, his next script, The Seeds of Death, is another variation on this theme. In its version of the future, humans have outsourced another of their critical functions, namely movement from place to place. Having adopted the T-mat system for travelling everywhere, they have lost the knowledge and equipment to travel by any other means. Their over-reliance on the system, like Leader Clent (Peter Barkworth) and Miss Garrett’s (Wendy Gifford) dependence on the decision making computer, leaves them vulnerable when it breaks down.

Doctor Who‘s fifth season is often unthinkingly categorised as the monster season, where bases were under siege and aliens played by tall men towered over a supporting cast of desperate humans. But The Ice Warriors and a few of its contemporaries start introducing a couple of new concerns about humans and the world around them. The first is that it’s possible to meddle with the world to disastrous effect. There’s climate change here, and in The Seeds of Death, and in The Enemy of the World  Salamander can manipulate the natural world to produce earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The second idea is that when threatened, the planet will bite back. In The Ice Warriors, this is represented by the relentless march of the glaciers. In Fury from the Deep, when humans start mining for gas, a mysterious sea weed creature emerges to strike back. So these are not just schlocky monster mashes, but the initiators of themes which will be explored in stories like Inferno, The Mutants and The Green Death, touchstones of 70s Doctor Who.

Not everyone in The Ice Warriors has bought into this brave new world. As a counterpoint to the sterile, authority driven characters of Clent and Garrett, there’s Scientist Penley (Peter Sallis) and  Storr (Angus Lennie). They have chosen to abandon the base and live out in the wilderness, eschewing the artificial life within the base. It Storr’s case, it’s because of a natural distrust of anything which doesn’t come from the natural world. For Penley, though, it’s because he was incompatible with a system which suppresses individuality and creativity. In a world of conformity to a global computerised autocrat, Penley wants to think for himself. This sets him on a collision course with Clent.

DOCTOR: This chap Penley.

CLENT: Best man in Europe for ionisation studies. As it turned out, hopelessly temperamental.

DOCTOR: Temperamental or individual? Creative scientists have to be allowed some head you know.

CLENT: Creative? Poppycock. When he walked out of here he proclaimed himself to be criminally, criminally irresponsible.

DOCTOR: It couldn’t have been just a simple gesture of protest?

CLENT: He was always protesting. And he has a really unconvincing beard! Have you seen it? It’s ridiculous. Like someone with a black texta has mistaken his face for a colouring book.

OK, I may have made that last bit up. But there’s a part of this story which is really about an ongoing office tiff between Penley and Clent which has got out of hand. However, it’s also a new take of the familiar obsession of the Troughton era, that outside influencers will rob us our individuality and freewill. In The Ice Warriors, this has already happened, and the result is a society like that on Britannicus Base, where individuality is crushed, freedom is lost and everyone wears one piece plastic jumpsuits. Penley stands out as the one who has refused to conform. Naturally enough, it’s him we sympathise with and he who eventually saves the day, taking the risky decision to use the Ioniser on the Ice Warriors’ spaceship, even though it might destroy them all. He triumphs when the computer is useless and Clent is paralyzed with indecision.

Into this world of man, machines, the world around us and how they all interact, stumble the Ice Warriors themselves. Surprisingly, they are the least interesting thing about The Ice Warriors. They are generic alien grunts blessed with better than average costume design. In future stories, they will develop a backstory which will make them more intriguing, but here are just sort of present to stomp around and loom over people. The Daleks are nightmarish vision of the results of nuclear war, the Cybermen an expression of what humans may become as technology advances. Even the Great Intelligence and its Yeti henchbots can be seen, if you squint, as reactions to contemporary concerns about the horrors which might be unleashed if you expand your consciousness.

The Ice Warriors have no such allegorical background. They are just big old bad guys, and in truth, they don’t really fit with the rest of the story’s themes. They should really be more, well, Silurian. If they weren’t Martian invaders, but bestial remnants of our own world, who thrived during the first Ice Age and now are coming back as a result of our monkeying around with the climate, then that would fit nicely. Or if they acted illogically and unpredictably, confounding the computer’s ability to exercise its authority, and necessitating a return to human leadership. Anything really, to link them to the story other than, “it’s cold, so we need a monster who likes the cold.”

LINK TO The Unquiet Dead: snowy exteriors and Victorian houses.

NEXT TIME: Knock knock! It’s Knock Knock.

Heroes, gods and The Three Doctors (1972/3)

Folks, join me in considering the near complete pointlessness of Mr Ollis (Laurie Webb). He exists to be accidentally transported to a distant world and thus to kick start the events of anniversary shindig, The Three Doctors. His face screams out of an X-ray giving the Doctor (dandyish Jon Pertwee) a clue as to what’s happening and a way into the story. Then, his usefulness is at an end.

Nevertheless, he’s hangs around. Ollis turns up on the barren world to carry a rifle, look unfazed by events and follow everyone else around until he’s returned home at the end of the story. By rights, the trip through the heavens to the world within the black hole should have killed him. But as it didn’t, he just kind of hangs around for the rest of the story.

Noticing Ollis and his superfluousness is a dangerous thread to pull at. Suddenly you realise that none of the supporting characters are needed. Certainly not Dr Tyler (Rex Robinson), once his plot function to bring Ollis’s disappearance to the attention of UNIT is achieved. He too is transported to this neverworld, and once there, he also has nothing to do but splutter bewildered statements and make conversation with the Doctor and Jo (ever devoted Katy Manning). But when you think about it, Jo has no significant contribution to make either. Nor do UNIT men the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney, at prime pompousness) and Sergeant Benton (John Levene, at prime gormlessness).

That’s all of this story’s supporting cast – save for a nagging wife and a flummoxed corporal – accounted for. And none of them are really necessary. They’re there simply to keep our leading men company – to pass the silicon rods and tell them how brilliantly infuriating they are. Which is understandable, because the main event is the Doctor meeting his former incarnations. A situation we’re used to after years of such match ups, but which at the time of The Three Doctors, must have felt a giddyingly exciting treat.

****

Who is the hero of this story? It’s a contentious point.

Patrick Troughton is on hand to steal the show away from Pertwee. Many tales have been told of the initial tension between them, generated by their contrasting approaches to the part; one serious and methodical, the other playful and instinctive. If Troughton was trepidatious about returning to the role, there’s no sign of it here. Instead he seems re-energized by the role and more than happy to let Pertwee carry the plot and think he’s the star. Troughton is content to be a constantly distracting presence, reminding the audience that the Doctor can be funny and naughty and whimsical. But this time in colour.

Pertwee sends four episodes trying not to notice. He’s behaving as if Troughton’s another supporting artist in his show, in an attempt to counteract Troughton’s pulling focus. But to no avail. Troughton’s presence pulls the show out of shape. Look, for instance, at his effect on the Brigadier. With Troughton around, the Brigadier becomes slightly unhinged, failing to believe the evidence of his own eyes and making post hoc rationalisations about Cromer. This is really the first story that turns him into a figure of fun, with comedy double takes and wry one liners. Because suddenly we have a Doctor cracking jokes again and he needs a straight man.

Then there’s poor William Hartnell. Hardly old at 64, but clearly very ill, so he needs to be confined to a space infirmary. He’s a shadow of his former Doctory self, his voice uncertain and unfamiliarly light. It’s not just difficult to watch, but also difficult to see – the combination of that strange pyramidal frame he’s perched in, plus the replaying of his footage onto the glarey TARDIS monitor screen. In all, there’s no tangible sense of the first Doctor being present, not just because he only appears in pre filmed segments, but because Hartnell has changed so much since he gave up the role. Given the dubious decision to put such a sick man onscreen in the first place, you have to ask if it was really worth it.

****

Then there’s Omega (Stephen Thorne), a kind of lonely god, sitting in a world incompatible with our own. With that booming voice and his platform boots, he clearly thinks he’s the story’s hero and these Doctors mere distractions.

Around this time Doctor Who built stories around a number of these demigod like super beings: your Azal, your Kronos, your Queen Spider and Omega form a little pantheon that stretches back to the Toymaker and forward to Sutekh. In each case, these beings are so powerful the Doctor cannot hope to defeat them with might. He must use some guile or trickery to defeat them. In this sense, the two Doctors’ approaches to fighting Omega are telling. The Third Doctor tries to mentally battle Omega (which means wrestling with Stuart Fell in a dream sequence) to no avail. The Second prefers a psychological approach; he needle away at Omega with trivialities to test his self control. It’s this method that eventually works.

It makes sense because as the story reveals, Omega has no physical presence; he exists only through force of his own will. He’s pure thought, so it’s fitting that he’s defeated by not being able to see through a trick designed to exploit his emotional instability. No mistake then that his Greek theatre style mask is shaped into a permanent wail of despair.

That mask, apart from being a great piece of design, is significant. It gives The Three Doctors its most effective moment, when the Doctors remove Omega’s mask to reveal that nothing but air fringed by a yellow CSO halo lies beneath. Masks are a common feature of Doctor Who, and usually a signal of villainy at the highest level. They hide a character’s true nature, often, disappointingly, the deformed features of a monster. In Omega’s case, though, it hides a man who’s not there, eaten away by the world which has kept him alive. It’s poetic, but it does suffer a bit from Guy Crawford syndrome, characterised by never thinking to look in a mirror.

Still, it turns Omega into that rarest of things in old Who, a villain who is also a figure of sympathy. The Doctor is remorseful at story’s end that he couldn’t save his people’s mythic hero, not even when multiplied by three. Though as later events will prove, it’s pretty hard to kill someone who exists only as a kind of robed stubbornness, so he needn’t have worried.

****

And how does this momentous story end? With multiple Doctors and Time Lord gods or the renewed TARDIS flying triumphantly off into the vortex?

No, of course not. It ends with inconsequential old Mr Ollis! He returns home to his long suffering wife who understandably wants to know where he’s been. And here’s the most amazing thing of all, he can’t be bothered telling her! That’s because he knows he’s actually the hero of this story! And from his point of view… not much really happened.

LINK TO: Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.DBoth feature not-quite-as-we-remember-them first Doctors.

NEXT TIME: We meet The Husbands of River Song. I hear they automatically believe any story they’re the hero of.

Psychedelia, stimuli and The Mind Robber (1968)

mindrob

So here’s the thing: it’s not called The Land of Fiction. Or even The Fact of Fiction. It’s called The Mind Robber. And I suppose that could be an attempt to disguise the nature of the fantasy world that our friends the Trought, the Fraze and Padders find themselves in during this surreal adventure. Not trying to give away the game too soon.

But I think it’s more than simple misdirection. This story is ostensibly about a land of fiction, but is more concerned with attacks on the mind. Perceptions are altered. Characters from fantasy are brought to life. Our heroes experience nightmare situations from twisted memories of childhood. It’s not just a trip into a land of story books; it’s simply a trip. It’s a mind altering experience. It’s Doctor Who‘s only real brush with psychedelia.

The show may have still been seen by many in 1968 as a children’s programme, but the makers of Doctor Who were clearly considering how drug taking was leading to new physical and mental experiences. The show’s first change of Doctor was described in terms of the effects of the ‘LSD drug’. Now two years later, we have a five week break from ordinary Doctor Who, which starts with being taken out of reality, and ends so abruptly that the whole thing might have been a dream. If our TARDIS team had started this adventure by all taking little white pills, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

It doesn’t start like that, of course. It starts with an episode of filler, required when the production team decided they couldn’t face a sixth episode of The Dominators. This opener, written by script editor Derrick Sherwin, although he wasn’t proud enough of it to take a credit, is an unusual the-dog-ate-my-homework sort of effort. With the scantest of resources available to him – the TARDIS set, a blank white studio and an empty black soundstage – Sherwin fills the episode with time-killing incident, none of which he feels obliged to explain. What is the ‘nowhere’ in which the TARDIS lands? How does it relate to the Land of Fiction? Why does the TARDIS disintegrate? Why does an unseen force want to lure our friends outside? And what exactly happens when the console spins away through space, Jamie and Zoe hanging on for dear life, arses in the air, leaving the Doctor rotating on the spot?

There are no answers. Sherwin seems to take his cue from the rest of the story, which being set in a fantasy land, gives him carte blanche to do what he likes and keep the explanations few. It’s a kind of narrative free pass – do whatever you like! It’s The Mind Robber, the normal rules don’t apply. It’s the same approach which allows Sherwin and fellow writer Peter Ling to change Jamie’s face when Hines contracts the chicken pox. Both are story saving expediencies born of this story’s dabbling with surrealism.

So in lieu of narrative logic, the writers give us arresting imagery. Don’t worry about what makes sense, worry about what looks cool. The TARDIS exploding and the console spinning through space are two memorable examples, but there’s also Jamie’s rejigged face (Hamish Wilson), Zoe stuck in a glass jar, a forest of letters, a charging unicorn (on another empty black set), the stop motion animation of Medusa’s snaky head, our friends being crushed in a giant book and so on.

This story serves up a continuous stream of surreal images. There’s even a word puzzle in the middle of it, which requires superimposed letters onscreen to make it clear what’s going on. It’s telling that this story has never been released on audio; it’s a story which demands to be seen. Lord knows what we’d have made of it if it hadn’t survived the junkings.

This smorgasbord of surreal imagery helps add to the trippy feel of the thing. It’s not so hard to imagine having a hallucinogenic experience akin to The Mind Robber, where crazy, random images picked out of memories of childhood stories parade past you. But that’s the style of the story, not the story itself. Within the narrative, none of our heroes ever question the reality of what’s going on around them. No one ever asks, “are we dreaming?” None of them question the reality of this world any more than they questioned whether Dulkis or the Space Wheel were real.

So while everything around them suggests this is a bizarre fantasy, the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe never treat this as anything other than a standard Doctor Who story. They cling to their real existence… Which itself is confusing because they are also fictional. When the Doctor starts drawing a line between himself, Jamie and Zoe as being real and Gulliver, Medusa et al as being fictional… Well, it’s so meta it makes my head spin. The Mind Robber? More like The Mind F*cker.

In the end, the thing which has actually stolen a mind is another computer with ideas above its station (see also The Keys of Marinus and The War Machines). It has enslaved a writer from Earth in the 1920s, who has filled this world with copyright-free fictional characters. Why the computer wants to create such a world remains unexplained but don’t worry, it looks cool, right?

As we race to the story’s end, we learn that the computer has plans to invade the Earth, and one of the Troughton era’s familiar themes reasserts itself: the importance of self and of retaining identity. When he hears the full plan, the Doctor’s appalled that humanity will become just like a string of featureless sausages, all the same. And in encouraging Jamie and Zoe to resist the mind control they’ve submitted to, he urges them to “think for yourselves!”.

This then, is the threat of opening your mind up to perception enhancing experiences, as The Mind Robber sees it – that you lower your own mental defences and sinister controlling influences might sneak in. It’s not quite a repudiation of psychedelia, because this story is not quite dealing with it in the first place. But it’s comforting that while Doctor Who flirts with psychedelia, it’s also sending a message to the kids; this might look like fun, but no good is going to come of it, right?

It ends in classic style, with Jamie and Zoe ‘overloading’ the computer by pressing all the buttons all at once (that’s usually how it’s done) and the Doctor rescuing the enslaved writer. They all run onto yet another empty black set and wait for the story to end, as if they’re waiting for a bus to arrive. Somehow it all gets magically put to right. They’re transported back to reality. The TARDIS reassembles. How? Who knows. But it looks cool, right?

LINK TO: Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. Well, maybe I’ve been taking the mind altering drugs, but is it too trippy to suggest that the Land of Fiction might be the kids’ lit section of the Library?

NEXT TIME: Dad Shock. We get a lot of it around our place. It’s time to meet The Doctor’s Daughter.

Super villains, trolly dollies and The Faceless Ones (1967)

faceless1“We are the most intelligent race in the universe,” boasts the Chameleon Director (Bernard Kay) during The Faceless Ones. Well, I’m not so sure. I think their convoluted plan to kidnap fifty thousand young tourists and steal their identities has one or two flaws.

  • Firstly, let’s say you need to kidnap fifty thousand people and you’re an advanced alien race. There were 3.4 billion people on Earth in 1966. Wouldn’t you quietly pick off people one by one, scattered around the world, to avoid attention? I’m not sure my first thought would have been to establish a fake airline, offer package tours to young tourists, send postcards home to their families and fly them to a waiting satellite. That’s the sort of convoluted planning we usually leave to the Cybermen.
  • Upon arrival at Gatwick Airport the Doctor and his friends start snooping about. Although Chameleon Tours has been operating under cover for months without detection, Polly (Anneke Wills) wanders into the wrong hangar and witnesses a murder, thus kicking the whole thing off. But when the Chameleons capture Polly, they choose not to simply hide her. They make the odd decision to duplicate her, send her Chameleon counterpart into the airport to interact with all her friends and try to pass her off as someone else entirely. (Which, it turns out, she’s not very good at. She fumblingly reveals herself after about 20 seconds of talking with the Doctor.) If you wanted to duplicate her to progress the plan in some way, why not just pretend to be Polly, gain the confidence of her friends and spy on their actions? Inventing a Swiss alter ego seems unnecessary to say the least.
  • Poor old Chameleon Spencer (Victor Winding, who I hope invented those peculiar text symbols in Microsoft Word). He gets charged with trying to kill the Doctor (Patrick Troughton, by now far less enigmatic than in last random’s, The Power of the Daleks) and he’s utterly rubbish at it. I get the feeling that his human counterpart must have watched a lot of Bond movies, because his methods of attack are unnecessarily supervillainy. There’s a room which fills with icy gas, a wee button gadget which incapacitates its victim when stuck on their back and, most stagily, a slowly moving laser beam which inches its way to our prone heroes. Thankfully, not directly at their crotches as in Goldfinger. This is a family show!
  • “I’m quite sure the first thing you want to do when you get to Switzerland is write home to your parents,” Chameleon flight attendant Ann Davidson (Gilly Fraser) tells a group of young travellers. Here, they clearly haven’t done their research into the 18-25 age bracket they claim to cater too. My bet is the first thing they’d want to do is find the nearest bar, load up on schnapps and make good with that cute blonde in seat 22d. Only after a few weeks would they want to send a postcard home and then only to ask Ma and Pa to send more money.
  • Aviation must have been very different in 1966. Apparently no-one tracked planes in flight all the way to their destinations, and no-one at those destinations noticed that no passengers ever disembarked from Chameleon Tours flights. Not until plucky Jean Rock (Wanda Ventham, but hang on a mo, Jean Rock – what a great name! I hope she had side career as a pop singer. Jean Rock and the Trolly Dollies, or something) checks with the destination airports in Episode 4. After which the Commandant (Colin Gordon) tells her off for incurring the expense of phoning internationally! (And hang on another mo, in a story which is at pains to give most characters first and last names, the Commandant doesn’t even get one. That’s right – he’s the Nameless One.)
  • The Chameleons’ duplication process doesn’t pick up Scottish accents. Which means that when Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Inspector Crossland (Kay again) are copied, they revert back to English accents. Clearly there’s a dial on those armbands set to ‘received pronunciation’. It’s a bit strange that a group of faceless aliens, looking to regain a sense of identity, would then homogenise all the little details that add distinctiveness to those identities. Unfortunately, they never get around to copying almost companion Samantha Briggs (Pauline Collins), so we’re stuck with her would be Liverpudlian accent throughout, flippin’ heck, ta ra luv and so on.
  • The ‘originals’ – the paralysed human beings copied by the Chameleons – have to remain untouched for their Chameleon doppelgängers to survive (which itself is a unfortunate flaw in the system). Luckily, they have been hidden where ‘they will never be found’. Or so the bad guys boast. Actually, they’ve been hidden on site at Gatwick, in the car park. The car park! A place that hundreds of people traverse through and where the originals could only have been spotted through the rigorous investigation of looking through a windscreen. The height of villainous cunning, it’s not.
  • Finally, there’s the real schoolboy blunder of making your own people’s survival dependent on some natty arm bands (all about wearables, these Chameleons) worn not by them, but by their originals. Which you’ll remember are safely stored, where they will never be found, in the car park. So of course when they are found, that enables the Doctor to fiddle with the armbands and blackmail the Chameleons into giving up their nutty scheme and head home. I mean, if the originals and their armbands are so vital to the survival of your species, then take them with you. You could store them on your own satellite, which might be marginally harder to locate and infiltrate than the car park. Just sayin’.

The Chameleons keep up an ongoing stream of insults about the intelligence of human beings through out The Faceless Ones. “Their minds can’t cope with an operation like this,” Captain Blade (Donald Pickering) sneers at one point. Well, you’re right there, mate. I certainly can’t make head nor tail of it.

LINK TO The Power of the Daleks: Both Troughtons and both from Season 4, but also, both start with a man being shot.

And as we’re talking, hasn’t it been a while since we had a new series story?

NEXT TIME: You will run, it will walk. You will rest, it will not. We’re trapped in the puzzle box called Heaven Sent.

 

Random Extra: Old, bold and The Power of the Daleks (2016)

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Of all the missing stories, The Power of the Daleks is the one we seem most desperate to piece back together. There have been photonovels and reconstructions and now an animation. I saw this latest version in the same cinema where I’d watched The Day of the Doctor nearly three years ago. That was an experience jam packed with new fans. Power was for a die hard audience of about 20. And it soon became apparent why.

I’ll get to that in a bit. First though… lights dim…   DumdaDum, DumdaDum… Ah, but there is something great about hearing that theme music in cinema quality sound. So exciting when it starts up and that smoky old title sequence looks great on the big screen. It does nothing to help you get over the fantasy that the actual episodes might have magically turned up and the whole animation thing’s been an elaborate ruse. But then the animation starts and you’re watching talking cartoons again. Ah well. Keep looking Phil.

I’ve talked about the animations before. They are labours of love and again the people behind them have worked immensely hard under a punishing timeframe. Power is one of the better efforts but as with all which have gone before, it’s clear that there’s never enough time or money awarded to these things. Glitches have inevitably crept in. Hats, jackets and whole outfits sometimes appear and disappear between shots. At one stage, Lesterson’s arm is sheared by a sharp vertical line. In some shots, Janley’s head doesn’t match up with her neck. And on the whole, faces, limbs and bodily movement are restricted to a few variations on templated norms, and thus regularly show up the limitations of the piece.

It can’t seriously compare with the standards of broadcast animation you’d expect on TV, let alone in the cinema. But it does have an advantage in the Daleks. Their geometric design and their smooth, gliding motion are made for animation. When it’s just them on screen, the whole thing bristles with greater confidence.

But even those animation friendly Daleks can’t help the problems involved in matching up to a 50-year-old mostly missing adventure. Yes, we have scripts, telesnaps and publicity photos to help animators fill the gaps, but seeking for verisimilitude with the original doesn’t always help. Power, like most good drama, has regular moments of silence. In the original, these which would have been filled by actorly and directorial flourishes. But in the animation, these moments often feel static and awkward.

There are numerous instances of this, but by way of, um, illustration, here’s one. In Episode 1, the Doctor walks across Lesterson’s lab and into the Dalek capsule. In the original, Patrick Troughton and director Christopher Barry would have conspired to make those silent seconds suspenseful and intriguing. Here, it’s just a cartoon figure wobbling from one side of the frame to another. It’s dull and it goes on too long. And that drag in pace happens over and over again. So many close ups held too long on a solitary face. Too many two-shots stretched out until the next line of dialogue. Too many shots with nothing happening, then something briefly happeningthen nothing happening again.

It happens because the production team has made no edits to the original audio, which they might have been tempted to do to pick up the pace (not to mention to give them a few less minutes to animate). Fine, many will say. We want Power to be complete as possible. But can’t we trim a slow scene a little here? Can’t we top and tail a few seconds of incomprehensible silence there? Can’t we take out that telltale sound of Dalek casters rolling on wooden rostra, and let them float in eerie silence? Can’t we – just as a general rule – edit the audio to make this an easier experience to watch?

(The funny thing is, the strict commitment to re-presentation of the original audio, doesn’t extend to the pictures. Director Charles Norton says on the supporting featurette, Destination: Vulcan, that the finished result is about a 50% shot-by-shot recreation of the original. So it’s surely the less faithful 50% which includes visual references to Magpie Electronics, from the 21st century’s The Idiot’s Lantern. It’s a fun reference. And it shows that the animators aren’t wedded to absolute adherence to the original pictures. So why the audio?)

I can guess the response from the purists, though: where do you stop? Start trimming the story back, and why not edit out some of the duller scenes? Why not add a subplot or other characters (perhaps even a third female character)? Why not, gasp, rewrite the whole thing? You’d have to recast the voices, but that’s possible… right, Big Finish?

It would be heresy to some. But do we want a version of Power which is only of interest to purists, like the 20 die hards in the cinema with me? Or do we want one which a general audience might warm to?

I’ll stick my neck out: we need to be brave. Let’s cut these old stories up. Remix them. We weren’t always so precious about these things; look at the sixties Dalek movies. New versions of old stories in new mediums for new audiences. We’ll reimagine Shakespeare and the Beatles… why not Doctor Who?

If they’re going to recreate further missing Doctor Who episodes, be they animated or live action (and frankly, the latter could make a cracking digital only series for the BBC), I hope they will be bolder. If they stick with animation, the obvious candidate is The Evil of the Daleks with Doctor and Dalek character designs already done. Rassilon knows, there’s a story which could do with a little restructuring. If they do turn to Evil, I hope they make the best version they can, not the most reverent version they can.

After all, that’s exactly the approach Russell T Davies took. When reinventing the program, he didn’t treat Doctor Who like it was made of glass. He knew it wouldn’t break. The same rule could by applied to missing episodes, and if they aren’t coming back, they’ll have to be remade to be seen. Which would be great for us long term fans but also for new fans – because these are at heart, great stories. But make them new. Just like the best Doctor Who, such as The Power of the Daleks, always was.

NEXT TIME… normal service is resumed with The Faceless Ones.

Hedging bets, playing dumb and The Power of the Daleks (1966)

powerradioThese days we’d call it a soft launch. When Doctor Who first changed its lead actor, it made no big deal about it. The publicity for his debut story story barely mentioned new Doctor Patrick Troughton. The Radio Time story focuses on familiar elements: Ben (Michael Craze), Polly (Anneke Wills) and the Daleks. They didn’t change the title sequence. The message being sent is this is business as usual. No need to panic.

Last random, we saw how you change a Doctor with utter confidence. The Power of the Daleks shows no such bravado. It’s not making a fuss, just in case it all goes wrong and in a few weeks they have to ask Hartnell to come back. Not only do the production team soften the new Doctor’s appearance with a return of the show’s most famous monsters, they also bring back a team of old hands to work behind the scenes; writers David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner were the series’ first two story editors and director Christopher Barry worked on the very first Dalek episodes. Bets have never been so hedged.

In fictional terms too, how and why the Doctor has changed is kept very vague, in case it has to be retrofitted later on. The new Doctor refuses to give a straight answer to a question, babbling about change and renewal. Nothing there which couldn’t be revised later on, should this whole risky experiment go wrong.

Of course, it didn’t go wrong. It went spectacularly right. Not only has regeneration become a mainstay of the series and an essential element of its lasting appeal, Troughton was a brilliant success in the part. These days, we’re well acquainted with the second Doctor and his mischievous, child-like ways. It’s hard to imagine just what a shock it was watching The Power of the Daleks and seeing this, well, clown, leapfrogging boulders, tootling on a recorder and ripping door knobs of walls. “It’s little things like this,” says Ben “that make it difficult to believe that you’re the Doctor.”

It’s clever of Whitaker and Spooner to vocalise the audience’s doubts through Ben, just as it is to give their counterpoints to Polly, who far more readily accepts that this newcomer is the same man, just changed. She seems entirely convinced by the time the new Doctor indulges in some playful tongue twisters. “Lesterson listen. Exercises the tongue. Try it!” he urges, and she joins in. If anything indicates that the old Doctor has gone for good, it’s surely this scene, which Hartnell, famously shaky on his lines at the best of times, could never have pulled off.

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The Daleks have also undergone a change. Having crash landed years ago on the colony planet Vulcan, they are being slowly awakened by starry eyed scientist Lesterson (Robert James). Rather than adopting their usual modus operandi of killing everyone within reach of a sucker arm, they instead adopt the pretense of working for the human colonists.

Various Vulcans see the Daleks as a way to further their own personal goals, whether it be scientific advancement like Lesterson or revolution and conquest like rebel leaders Janley (Pamela Ann Davy) and Bragen (Bernard Archer). Though you’d have thought the obsequious way the Daleks keep insisting to be everyone’s serrrr-VANTS! would have raised a few suspicious eyebrows. Not to mention that one almost gives the game away when it says, “a Dalek is bett…is not the same as a human!”

I’ve talked before about Whitaker’s idiosyncratic take on the Daleks, but its worth saying again that what he does is to personalise the Daleks by giving them a dose of human foibles: lying, deception and scheming. Lesterson even sees them as humanity’s replacement, although he says so once he’s gone doolally. “We understand the human mind,” one of them grates, and they do demonstrate an ability to psychologically manipulate those around them, by appealing to their greed. Still they haven’t entirely got us sussed. When Bragen orders one of them to kill the colony’s Governor (Peter Hensell), it ponders “why do human beings kill other human beings?” It’s played nicely too, as much as a ring modulator can convey emotion. The sense is not so much of a poignant Dalek reaction to death, but more a surprised reaction to how easy this conquest of the colony has been. #Trump.

The Doctor spends the whole story warning everyone about the Daleks, to no avail. If anyone watching still shared Ben’s doubts about this newcomer’s identity, it’s this suspicious attitude to the Daleks which shows he’s the same bloke as the white haired geezer he saw in the mirror. The audience knows he’s right too – as early as Episode 3 it’s clear that a Dalek can’t change its bumps. It’s another clever plotting trick of Whitaker’s, to put the audience on the side of this new Doctor. Even though he looks different and won’t answer a straight question, we know he’s right about the Daleks, so we’re on his side.

The power politics of the Colony and how the Daleks aid and abet it take up five episodes, and make for interesting enough listening. Episode 6, though, turns things up a notch. It starts with the Daleks finally articulating their true plan, to annihilate all humans, and then methodically setting about the task. The episode is almost entirely made up of the Daleks mercilessly mowing down humans, rebels and loyalists alike. It’s as grim as sixties Doctor Who gets. At one stage, a desperate Ben and Polly can do nothing but hide in a cupboard and hope to survive.

The Doctor’s plan comes worryingly late in the day. It’s to use the Daleks’ own power supply to blow their domed tops off. To make it happen, the Doctor has to resort to desperate measures. He has to use Bragen’s guards as a distraction, to allow him time to lash the set up together. It works, but the death count is Sawardesque.

Not everyone is grateful. The Doctor’s solution destroys the colony’s power supply, ensuring months of hardship. But there’s something even more worrying; an indication that the Doctor’s motivations are far from clear.

POLLY: Mind you, he wasn’t very convincing when he was trying to explain it to Valmar and Quinn and everybody.

BEN: No, he wasn’t, was he?

POLLY: Doctor, you did know what you were doing, didn’t you?

(The Doctor laughs softly)

What’s the suggestion here? That the Doctor deliberately botched his own attempts to explain the danger presented by the Daleks, so that he might play some long game of his own? A game which left scores of people dead?

One thing’s for sure, this is no longer business as usual. It might now be time to panic.

RANDOM QUESTION: when the Doctor tells Ben and Polly to go away and amuse themselves for a while, what do you think they get up to? I hope they had fun. Maybe in one of the empty rocket rooms.

LINK TO The Twin Dilemma: Doctory debuts.

NEXT TIME… It’s a flying beastie! We’re sticking with Troughton to face The Faceless Ones.

BUT BEFORE THEN: an random extra post, on The Power of the Daleks animation.